A danger to herself?

Claire StainthorpClare Stainthorp has recently submitted her AHRC-funded PhD thesis on Constance Naden at the University of Birmingham, where she is currently a teaching associate. She is interested in the poetry, interdisciplinary ideas, and freethinkers of the nineteenth century, and can most often be found in a London library thinking about future research projects. Clare is also the editorial assistant for the journal Modernist Cultures. You can find her tweeting @ClareGS87.

In the decade after Constance Naden’s death in 1889 she became, in some circles, a cautionary tale about the plight of the intellectual woman. As a result of an inflammatory letter written about her by one of the most prominent thinkers of the Victorian age she came to represent how women became a danger to their own health if they chose to pursue a life dedicated to thought and learning.

Constance Naden
Fig. 1 Photographic portrait of Naden c.1886. Further Reliques of Constance Naden (London: Bickers and Song, 1891), frontis.

Today Naden is best known, if at all, as a poet. In her lifetime and immediately after, however, she was rightly celebrated by many as a trail-blazer in terms of her desire to conquer the traditionally male-dominated spheres of science and philosophy. She was elected the first female associate of Mason Science College in Birmingham, had been warmly welcomed into London’s philosophical Aristotelian Society, and frequently published letters and articles in periodicals about social evolution and her atheist philosophy. She was an advocate of social reform, and supported several causes that sought to benefit the position of women, including the Central National Women’s Suffrage Society, the Women’s Liberal Association, and the National Indian Association (through which she hoped to address the position of Indian wives). She was independently wealthy as a result of an inheritance from her grandparents, which meant that she never felt obliged to marry and was able to be generous in her charitable support of less-fortunate women. Indeed, shortly before her death she had committed to take ‘responsibility of the Campden Houses [in London…] for the reception of ladies of limited means’. [1] In addition, her most well-loved poems provided a comic perspective on modern romance, for example taking a critical, almost anthropological, view of male impudence and female acquiescence when considering human relationships through the lens of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection (see the ‘Evolutional Erotics’) and exploring the tensions caused by educated women being expected to remain the angel in the house (see ‘Love Versus Learning’). [2]

Her death at the age of thirty-one led to the publication of many positive obituaries that celebrated her diverse achievements, however it was a letter of condolence written by Herbert Spencer a few months after Naden’s death that became a defining text in regards to her legacy. The majority of the letter is laudatory: he compares Naden favourably with George Eliot and states ‘Unquestionably her subtle intelligence would have done much in furtherance of rational thought; her death has entailed a serious loss’. He nonetheless concludes with the assertion that ‘in her case, as in other cases, the mental powers so highly developed in a woman are in some measure abnormal, and involve a physiological cost which the feminine organization will not bear without injury more or less profound’.[3] Spencer thus had the temerity to suggest that Naden – accomplished poet, philosopher, and scientist – died of complications to do with ovarian cysts because her body could not support the brain work that she had been undertaking with such confidence and ability.

This, unsurprisingly, angered many people. Madeline Daniell, Naden’s great friend and travelling companion, wrote one letter of rebuke. She stated in no uncertain terms that ‘Miss Naden’s lamented death was not caused by her exceptional mental development’, indeed ‘It was the strength and healthiness of her brain which kept her spirits even, and allowed her to work without evil effects’ during her protracted illness. She argued that such ‘highly developed mental powers’ may only be conceived of as ‘abnormal’ in that they are not common in men or women. Daniell was clearly aware of the potential damage caused by these claims from the pen of such a high-profile commentator, noting that ‘Mr. Spencer’s words carry much weight, and have much influence, therefore I have been constrained to write so that no false impression may go abroad’.[4] Similarly, in 1894 the principal of Mason College, R. S. Heath, named Naden in an interview when asked about whether there had been any ‘great women students’, and took the opportunity to refute Spencer’s assessment of her death as being indicative of the strain higher education places on women’s bodies.[5]

It was not only Naden’s friends that were outraged. After Spencer’s letter was printed in some newspapers several individuals felt compelled to respond. Some did so with humour. ‘Lætitia’ wrote to the Women’s Penny Paper with an amused but critical attitude, asking ‘Mr Spencer what ought women to do, to whom Nature has been so unkind as to bestow on them mental gifts rare in both sexes? In what way ought they seek to rectify this unaccountable oversight?’.[6] Others attacked Spencer more directly. An anonymous male correspondent wrote to a Scottish newspaper, berating the way Spencer ‘seizes the golden moment’ of Naden’s death to ‘read the ambitious sex a homily’. He remarks that Spencer ‘strangely enough, forgets that he himself has been an invalid the greater portion of his life […] and that he has thereby unfitted himself for fatherhood as much as the most abandoned feminine savant ever unfitted herself for motherhood’.[7]

This latter observation gets to the heart of many people’s problem with women’s education during the late Victorian period. During the second half of the nineteenth century opportunities for women to attend higher education institutions were rapidly increasing: during the 1870s seven trail-blazing women began to study medicine in Edinburgh, women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were established in 1879 and 1869 respectively, and from the start new institutions such as Naden’s Mason College (established in 1880) received female and male students on equal terms. Women’s invasion of the masculine public sphere – which encompassed science, philosophy, literature, politics, and almost all professions – was deemed problematic because it undermined traditional distinctions between the sexes. It was implied that by taking up such roles women would no longer desire, or be able, to fulfil their domestic roles. This is illustrated by the proliferation of negative cartoons about the so-called New Woman in popular magazines such as Punch. This example from 1894 shows the decidedly masculine-looking Miss Quilpson, a ‘literary type’, exclaiming ‘What? I marry! I be a man’s plaything! No, thank you!’

Fig. 1 George-Du-Maurier, ‘Passionate Female Literary Types’, Punch, 2 June 1894.
Fig. 1 George-Du-Maurier, ‘Passionate Female Literary Types’, Punch, 2 June 1894.

Even some of the people closest to Naden were inclined to agree. Her friend and biographer William Hughes was not obviously enraged and instead supported Spencer’s assertion about the female body’s inability to sustain masculine intellect alongside good health.[8] An 1891 article about Naden’s life and works made this even more explicit, turning Naden’s life and tragically early death into a cautionary tale intended to dissuade other women from similarly pursuing their intellectual interests. The anonymous reviewer wrote: ‘To tell the truth […], a young woman who is troubled about the mystery of things will usually find the best answer in a house to keep and children to bring up, and a husband to control. If we had fewer educated unmarried women, we should have much less yearning, and much less of the poetry of detachment. […] Thinking of this young lady dead almost before the death of youth, […we] may regret, vainly and foolishly, perhaps, what seems a waste of life to many; a career, a mode of thought, common enough to-day among women of intellect.’[9]

Despite the developing strength of the women’s rights movement and continued expansion of educational opportunities for women across the 1890s and into the twentieth century, there continued to be publically expressed wariness regarding the negative repercussions of such intellectual development. Well over a decade after Naden’s death Havelock Ellis deemed it ‘worthwhile to quote’ in full Spencer’s assessment of Naden as a footnote to his observation that women’s brains are not well-suited to philosophical thought.[10]

The idea of women being a danger to themselves by not following some men’s advice about what was ‘best’ for their mind and body has been a persistent one. In the case of Naden this assessment came to overshadow her many achievements. Spencer’s voice became louder and more persistent than her own, diluting any dangers Naden’s often radical writings might have posed towards the patriarchal society in which she lived. It is only in recent decades that Naden’s place in the history of thought has begun to be re-established, her unique and insightful voice rising above that of those who attempted to silence it.


[1] William R Hughes, Constance Naden: A Memoir (London: Bickers & Son; Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1890), p. 50. For a fuller biography and survey of criticism relating to Naden’s life and works, see Clare Stainthorp, ‘Constance Naden: A Critical Overview’, Literature Compass (2017, forthcoming).

[2]The Complete Poetical Works of Constance Naden (London: Bickers & Son, 1894)’, Victorian Women Writers Project, Indiana University Digital Library Program <http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/vwwp/VAB7115

[3] Herbert Spencer, ‘Letter from Mr. Herbert Spencer to Dr. Lewins. June 10th 1890’, in Memoir, p. 90.

[4] Madeline Daniell, ‘A Point Omitted’, Women’s Penny Paper, 5 July 1890, p. 439.

[5] G. W. T., ‘Do Women Study Science? An Interview with R. S. Heath’, The Woman’s Signal, 25 October 1894, pp. 258-59 (p. 259).

[6] Lætitia, ‘For Herbert Spencer to Answer’, Women’s Penny Paper, 5 July 1890, p. 439.

[7] ‘The Woman Question from a Man’s Point of View’, Evening Telegraph, 4 April 1895.

[8] Hughes, p. 91.

[9] ‘The Modern Young Woman’, Daily News, 3 April 1891.

[10] Havelock Ellis, Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characteristics, 4th edition (London: Walter Scott Publishing, 1904), p. 212.